John James Audubon is the first person known to band birds in North America. Two hundred years ago, in 1803, the young naturalist tied silver threads to the legs of baby Eastern phoebes. He wondered if the birds would return as adults to the orchard where they had hatched — and they did. . .
Today, the National Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, oversees researchers who band more than a million birds every year. Banding studies help scientists learn where birds go on migration — how far they fly and what routes they follow.
Consider the Chimney Swift, a common summer resident of North America. Just a few decades ago, scientists had no idea where swifts go in winter. By 1943, nearly 375,000 Chimney Swifts had been banded in the United States and southern Canada. The following year, the American Embassy in Lima, Peru, recovered 13 of the bird bands from indiginous people. These birds are now known to winter in the central Amazon basin.
Banding also reveals how long birds live. One banded Laysan Albatross was found to be more than 42 years old!
A bird is captured by a scientist, banded, and released. Some time later, in a new location, the bird is recaptured and the band number is noted.
Or, the bird dies-perhaps killed by a predator, shot by a hunter, or dies in a collision with a window or car. Someone finds the dead bird and sends the band number and other information to the Bird Banding Lab.
Bird banding data are using in two ways. One is for basic research, to learn more about the life histories of different bird species. Another is as an aid in management decisions. Banding studies can establish where habitat should be protected, and help determine whether populations are growing or declining.
Here are some more detailed examples of the many ways in which bird banding has been used as a research tool:
- To study dispersal and migration: Banding studies have help scientists locate the wintering or breeding grounds of migratory species. Banding has also helped to determine migration routes.
- To study bird behavior: When researchers can identify individual birds on the basis of their bands, it becomes possible to study such things as territorial behavrior, how faithful birds are to their mates, and reproductive behavrior (when male and female look alike, bands allow you to determine which one builds the nest or feeds the young).
- To determine bird life spans: Without identifying bands, it would be impossible to tell whether the bird you see in the same location from year to year for example, the bluebird in your nest box really is the same individual.
- Population studies: Scientists determine the size of many animal populations using a technique called mark-recapture. Banding can be used in mark-recapture studies. A known number of birds are captured and banded, then released. Later, scientists capture a random sample of birds. The ratio of banded to unbanded birds is the basis for a calculation that estimates population size.
- Mortality Rates: A seabird fledges four chicks. How many will survive to the age of one year, and how many will be killed by predators or disease? Do human-caused factors such as pollution or habitat loss affect mortality rate? Banding studies can help answer such questions.
- Disease Research: Crows are dying from West Nile virus. How prevalent is the disease in a given population? Banding studies can help answer this question.
- Wildlife management: Banding studies of game birds grouse, quail, ducks, geese, and others–is essential for developing sustainable parameters for hunting
A bird lies on its back in a scientist s hand, tiny head gripped between the knuckles of the man s fingers. He clamps pliers on the bird s leg and squeezes firmly, sealing a tiny, silvery metal ring around the toothpick-thin ankle. Another bird, banded for science.
At the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists Union in New Orleans in October 2002, John Tautin, Chief of the Bird Banding Lab at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, will make a presentation in celebration of 100 years of bird banding in North America.
The first American to band birds for scientific study was actually a snail expert, Paul Bartsch. (Birds were just his hobby.) In 1902, Bartsch banded black-crowned night herons in Washington, DC, to study their migration. Tiny numbers on the aluminum bands allowed him to identify individual birds.
By some measures banding in North America is actually 200 years old. In 1803, naturalist John James Audubon tied silver threads to the legs of nestling phoebes in his orchard, to see if they would return to the place where they had hatched the following year. (They did).
Whether scientists celebrate one century or two, bird banding has proved an invaluable research tool in America. Bands help scientists track migration routes, figure out how long birds live, determine how much space they need for feeding or nesting, and even decipher the decisions birds make in choosing mates.